Words Matter

(image via Raphael Schaller)

(image via Raphael Schaller)

The AARP is a huge organization. With over 37 million members and one of the most envied and prolific membership machines in recent memory they are a force to be reckoned with as advocates for senior adults. The running joke is, if you want to catch Osama Bin Laden, wait till he turns fifty…because AARP will find him with a membership letter!

However, an organization of this size is not known for nimble change. Nancy LeaMond, group executive officer, told me the following story. Recently AARP put together a focus group video to use in developing their key messages . They had each of their top executives individually talk on camera about AARP's policy positions. Though the strategy had already been set, and the talking points established, Nancy learned something very interesting during the editing. Even though all the execs basically said the same thing, they weren’t using the same language! Different phrases and key words were used leaving a viewer with an impression that the message was confused and lacking in coherency.

“We found this out quite by accident”, she told me. “During the editing process for the video it became clear that we were saying very different things. And while we had all agreed on the framework for our strategy, the way our policy was communicated by different leaders was muddled. We learned that words matter. It’s not enough for your senior team needs to mean the same thing; they must say the same thing.”

Colleen Clark, head of HR at Eastern Mountain Sports, says “The conversation is the culture.” I couldn’t agree more.

During a significant organizational change bring your people together for one-on-one sessions in front of a video camera and ask them to tell you how they will talk about the change. Then sit back and watch. Is the language consistent? Are the same key words being used over and over? Is the phrasing not just aligned, but even identical?

Because at the end of the day, Nancy LeaMond is right. Words do matter.

CommunicationDavid Baum